Despite treatment for cancer this ‘great New Zealander’ shows little sign of slowing up. He opens up about pipes, kiwi and a privileged upbringing.

Rob Fenwick, the businessman and environmentalist and, until lately, quite possibly the busiest man in the country, turned 64 on Tuesday. He has recently sold his share of his compost business, Living Earth - his great PR trick used to be to threaten to eat his own product to prove how safe it was to compost human waste. He finished chemotherapy, for lung cancer, last week. He gave up smoking his pipe 20 years ago - he was in PR, with Murray McCully, and he said they both used to puff away on their pipes, which was the sort of thing PR types did back then. I asked whether it was like Mad Men and he laughed and said: "Aah. We had a lot of fun ... It was a different world." I'll say. Those pipes ... "Ridiculous," he said.

On Wednesday he was at home in Remuera and he was wearing shorts and not wearing shoes. He looked good, I said, and he said: "I'm feeling pretty good. I'll have a few check-ups but my feeling is that I'm in the clear. That's good. I'll put that one behind me."

I was glad he was good because I had thought he might not be. Somebody had told me he was ill and suggested I go and see him but of course I didn't say: I want to come and see you, just in case you're not around for much longer. I could have said that, actually, because he has a robust sense of humour and, although he is a serious person, he doesn't take himself seriously.

He had a drinks party for his birthday and I asked who came and he had a think and said: "Who would you know?" I have interviewed quite a few of his famous mates, some of whom were at his party, and we had a very jolly time going through the list. I said: "How mad is X currently?" He said: "Ha, ha, ha. He's not mad! He's lovely." I said, about the judge, of whom, I had better say now, we are both exceedingly fond, that I hadn't seen him since he became a judge but he must be stonkingly pompous now. "Ha, ha, ha," he said. "He must practise in front of the mirror, don't you think! X is a terrific human being."

Advertisement

So I could easily have said I wanted to see him before he shuffled off this mortal coil and I'm pretty sure he would have laughed. But he does have a slight reserve which is mostly good manners. When I phoned and left him a message about an interview, some time ago, he phoned me back - from the hospital. Actually, that might be beyond good manners. He is, like his mates, lovely and a terrific human being.

So, hooray, he's certainly not dying and he says he's not about to retire but he claims he is going to cut back on what he calls his "manic" dedication to causes. If he says he's going to stop doing quite so much, you have to believe him. He has recently spent some time contemplating why he has always taken on so much. "One does become more reflective of what you've achieved and what you haven't and the inevitable imbalances in everybody's life ... There has to be a cost. There has to be a deficit. And, yeah, I do think about that."

It's hard to know how to describe what he does, really, because he does so much. I said that I could simply list all of the things he's done and is still doing and that would take up this entire page, which would make it an easy week for me. He said: "Well, I wasn't sure why you'd rung me anyway, Michele!"

I wasn't sure why I'd never phoned him before because here are just a few (phew!) of the things he's been, perhaps maniacally, involved in: Forming the Progressive Greens as a riposte to the idea that business and environmental causes couldn't co-exist; inaugural convener of the National Party's environmental policy unit, the Blue Greens; trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature; chancellor of the Order of St John; deputy chairman of TVNZ; founding chairman of Mai FM; covenanting his 1000 acres of Waiheke bush with DoC; gifting 6km of his Waiheke farm for a public walkway; heading the Antarctic Restoration project to help save the Scott and Shackleton huts. He also has an oyster farm, at Waiheke. "And this after I campaigned for the bay to become a marine reserve!" It is an environmentally friendly oyster farm, of course.

For his birthday, his mate Mike Hutcheson, the adman, gave him a bottle of Mackinlay's Shackleton whisky - recreated from the crates found at the hut in the Antarctic by the same Scottish distillery. "The actual miracle was that the distillery was still going 100 years on because distillers come and go. So we decided we'd just get one bottle out of the case we discovered and send it to the distillery and the distiller, who I've met - this lovely sort of tweedy Scotsman with an enormous honker ... " A red one? "Yeah, literally pulsating! And he jammed it into this glass of whisky and said: 'I can make this'." The trust gets about 25 quid for each bottle sold, which likely makes him as happy as getting a bottle for his birthday.

Some other things he got for his birthday: A kowhai tree, and a greenstone and gold tie pin, from his wife, Jennie. "Would you like to see it? It is quite fabulous and it's got a silver fern." My grandmother had one of these, I said, but I didn't know anything about them. I do now. You go to see him and come away knowing about a lot of things you didn't know you wanted to know. I imagined that if you could see inside his head you'd discover an enormous book: An Encyclopedia of Interesting Things. I also now know a lot about oyster farming and diseases of oysters and about the pin. They were produced at the time of World War I, as lapel pins. It is a nice show of patriotism - understated, lovely to look at, and doesn't involve a silly kiwi symbol. We would get to kiwi, but for now we were admiring his pin, which he was chuffed with. I said we could have something elegant like that, for a new flag, which is the sort of issue he is very keen on talking about. He said: "We get very confused about this jolly flag. Some of the symbols that we use ... You know, the thing that you get for the New Zealand Order of Merit is awful. The Cross of St George? I mean, what's that got to do with New Zealand?" He has a Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit.

His friend, Bob Harvey, who is not a bit mad, once said of him that he was a great New Zealander. "One of the most dedicated and generous people living in this country." He went a bit quiet when I read him that although he did concede that it was a nice thing to say. I suggested that instead of running any more of that list of his causes I could settle for saying that he was a good guy. It would take up less space. "Ha, ha. Yeah!"

He is not, unlike some of his more famous mates (I asked if all of his mates were famous or rich and he said: "No!") particularly comfortable with being in the public eye. Which is not to say that he eschews the public eye when it is focused on his causes. He was a PR man, after all.

I thought he must be a philanthropist but he said: "No, I'm not a philanthropist. Well, you have to have a lot of money to be a philanthropist." I thought he did have a lot of money. "No!"

He comes from a family of philanthropists - so not having a lot of money makes sense; the lot before him gave it all away. "Ha, ha. It's a sort of family tradition to give things away." The madly ornate box on the living room cabinet once contained the now lost keys to the city of Sheffield presented to his maternal great-great-grandfather Sir Frederick Mappin who made his fortune in Sheffield steel, making springs for locomotives. He was given a baronetcy (his grandfather inherited it but as his children were all girls, it died with him) and "gave his money away ... He started Sheffield University, started Sheffield Art Gallery, he built cathedrals. He did amazing things." His grandfather Sir Frank Mappin gave the family home in Epsom away. It is the Governor-General's Auckland residence, Government House. I said I'd be rather miffed about that but he said that it was a practical decision: The family couldn't bear the idea of the land being one day subdivided.

I also thought he must have had a fairly privileged upbringing and he did, really, but he says his mother "worked very hard to make it normal". The bits that weren't normal were: "Well, my grandfather ... living in this lovely house and the big black Daimler and the chauffeur. That's not normal. It didn't feel normal to me."

As a teenager he struggled with the idea of having a grandfather with a baronetcy. 'You know, he's inherited this title and I found that a weird concept. He was a very nice man but we're used to titles being earned."

I think people mistake him for a left-winger (or perhaps only I do) but he was faintly horrified, I think, at the idea. I suppose that was rather the point of his short-lived idea that he wanted to be a right-wing but green politician; that you can be both. He found politics too brutish and bruising. It didn't suit his character.

He is not shy of wading in, though. One of his latest things is the Predator Free NZ campaign of which the most vocal trustee is Gareth Morgan. This led us to the kiwi and, eventually, convolutedly, on my part, to a debate about whether he'd be prepared to sacrifice his nice little much-loved dog, Louie, to save a kiwi. Louie is the size of a smallish cat. Her owner later sent me an email titled: Louis or a kiwi? An excerpt: "Louie, a small 10-year-old poodle-cross. does not escape suspicion. Many think pig dogs are principal culprits of kiwi predation, but any dog, large or small, left uncontrolled where there are kiwi, will hunt them down. If it was her, then yes, I'm afraid little Louie would be dispatched to her maker ... (not in front of the family.)"

I'm relieved about that: "Not in front of the family"!

It would, I assumed, matter to him to be thought a good person. He said: "Um. Well, if you put it the other way around, I wouldn't like to be thought of as a bad person. It feels right to be thought of as somebody who contributes and tries to get stuff done."

I asked if he'd like to be a Sir and he said: "No!" If he was offered a knighthood, would he turn it down then? "It's never occurred to me, Michele!"

It has occurred to me that it is more ridiculous than pipe-smoking that he isn't a Sir and I shall be writing a stiff letter to the PM. (I await the stiff letter from Mr Rob Fenwick complaining that there wasn't more about saving the kiwi.)